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The Chinese Tea Ceremony Scam

Road Junky scammed on his first day in Beijing. How embarrassing.

Ok I admit it – I got suckered bad.

Maybe I’ve just grown soft and let my guard down a little. It’s embarrassing for me to admit getting ripped off. Over 40 countries and years on the road – hitching, living on beaches, teaching English to Mexicans, and everywhere in between I’d only suffered a few incidents of minor theft. Someone grabbed my CD case in Peru, my change wallet was lifted in Bahia, Brasil, and some small Thais hidden in the luggage compartment of my bus to Bangkok rifled through my bag to grab 50 Aussie dollars. Nothing major at all – no hold ups, no rip offs, and no scams – in fact I prided myself in just how savvy and street smart I must be in having avoided everything.

China changed all that on my first day in Beijing.

Jetlagged but bored, I left my hotel room and caught the subway down to the city center, an area called Wang Fu Jing. I had just finished my last novel on the plane ride from Dubai so I ducked into one of the large international bookstores to see what they were carrying. After buying a couple of books I hit the streets again to see what there was to see.

I might as well of had a rob me sign around my neck. It happened innocently enough. A shyish Chinese girl appeared at my side and said she noticed me leaving the bookstore, and that she was just there, too. She was an English student, says she, and started asking details about my stay in Beijing.

Now, keep in my mind that I am a misanthrope who would rather stay in alone than actually trust a stranger I meet on the touristed streets. However, I feel like I miss out on a lot of what’s around me due to this kind of distrust. So I decided to hear this girl out and spend a few moments with her walking Wang Fu Jing.

Major mistake. We passed the shopping area and turned to the infamous snack street – a bustling row of street carts that specializes in offering malfeasant foods to gawking, photo-snapping foreigners. Scorpions on sticks, starfish, camel paw, mystery meat, it was all there. Annie, my friend’s English name, and I spent half an hour walking up and down the stands trying out different foods. Oddly, she didn’t know the English name for much of anything.

After snacking, Annie tells me she wants to buy a gift for her niece. Here we go, I thought, but after some prodding we go together into one of the cheap junk shops across the street. Cigarette lighters, plastic race tracks, bells, whistles, balls, we had walked into an environmentalist’s nightmare thinking of all the pollution and waste that was emitted creating all this mindless crap. The salespeople descended upon me like buzzards, offering Mao massagers and magnetic whoop-dee-dees that looked ready to fall apart in my hands. Already my snacks weren’t sitting well.

After buying a plush animal, and not asking me to pay for it, Annie asks me whether I want to try some tea upstairs. And that’s when it happened. I should have known better. But lost in the blur of whirring plastic toys, the haze of neon and Beijing pollution, and feeling a little defenseless as my digestion struggled, I assented. Why not? And we went upstairs.

The next floor was entirely dedicated to teas, which the Chinese take to an entirely unreasonable level. Following Annie, a pretty young attendant led us into a private room decorated with lavish woodworking and arranged with large containers of teas. There were jars of flower teas, seed teas, bud teas, leaf teas all ready to be tasted. Annie kept smiling and making jokes as an even prettier tea pourer came in and started the ‘show.’

The tea ceremony, which was more of a demonstration, lasted 5 minutes and was entirely in Mandarin. Teas were taken from the jars, poured with hot water from kettle to glass, which we would then sample. Annie tried to explain which was what and we happily compared tastes. Actually up to now it was all good fun.

Until the bill came. 1100 RMB/kwai/yuan – whatever you want to call it – the five minutes of tea sampling cost $150 US. My jaw dropped. The manager was summoned, and she craftily revealed the pricing on a little placard that was hidden behind the jars facing the wrong way. It read, in English, despite the fact no other English had been spoken in the place, 150 yuan for each glass of each tea sample.

I was floored. Annie, in a performance worthy of an acting award, appeared shocked.

“I can’t believe this!” she exclaimed looking dismayed. “I thought we only had to buy something. I did not know. Really, please believe me. I did not know.”

And she offered to pay me the full amount ‘tomorrow.’

Reciting this story to a friend a week later, he advised me on what I should have done – take one or two hundred RMB out of my wallet, slam it on the table, and walk out. However, I buckled, disoriented by the jet lag and the outright confusion that comes with one’s first day in a place as weird as China. I talked the manager down to 1000 RMB which included a small canister of some supposedly exotic tea and shelled out the bill on a credit card.

What a god damn fool, I thought to myself, to have walked into that one.

Afterwards I wasn’t really even upset, even though I had just lost a ton of money. I still wanted to buy a mobile phone so I let Annie, who was still putting on her act, help me get one and get it set up. We even played some Chinese hack in the park before I took off.

On my way home Annie took my new phone number in her phone. Oddly, I saw her contacts contained very few Chinese names, instead I saw a list like Larry, Steve, Bob, Adam, and so on… She suggested we meet up some time at one of the popular clubs.

I never answered her calls after that, of course. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice… And of course the Chinese tea ceremony scam is a popular one, especially in Shanghai. Too bad I don’t carry guidebooks anymore and hadn’t heard about it.

But then again – I thought I was immune to scams.

UPDATE: Here’s a wonderful expose via YouTube:

Jim Klee

Jim Klee – sports a mangled passport and a well-worn rucksack. He believes travel to be a form of therapy against modern civilization’s madness. In 2002 Jim embarked on a journey starting with a one-way ticket no return to Mexico City. Some months later he discovered Tom Thumb sleeping in the shade besides his tent on a beach in Costa Rica. After surviving rip currents in Mexico, nearly freezing to death trekking solo in Patagonia, and getting knocked unconscious by submerged rocks while surfing in Australia, Jim decided to clear his head by beelining his way (mostly overland) to the Himalaya. There a regimen of Sufi poetry, yoga up in the mountains, and cheap gel pens resulted in a stack of notebooks containing an unpublishable travel novel. He re-emerged in New York City in late 2004 and Road Junky was born soon after.